Interview: Dr. Cornel West & Afro-Cuban Jazz Musician Arturo O’Farrill Explore Music & Activism

Since the days of the Civil Rights movement, jazz music and activism share a bond that seeps through the spirit of those who march for social change. From John Coltrane’s support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Kendrick Lamar’s call to action against police brutality, the bond has become stronger and overall a globally shared fellowship.

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That bond has also inspired Grammy award-winning Latino composer Arturo O’Farrill to merge the words of social change by activist and philosopher Dr. Cornel West with The Cornel West Concerto, a piece to be performed by O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at the legendary Apollo Theater on May 21.

The one-night-only event isn’t about matching music to Dr. West’s latest speeches in Chicago, New York and Baltimore, but unveiling the soulful connection of social change in the streets of Cuba to the neighborhoods in Ferguson, MO. O’Farill’s latest work Cuba: The Conversation Continues helped bridge the theme between the cultural and political divide in his homeland. His father the late Chico O’Farrill, an Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer, is originally from Havana, Cuba and helped provide the inspiration between the mix of Cuban and American music.

It was no surprise that O’Farrill’s love for political change jumped started the idea to include Dr. West in his work. Since their collaboration, the two have sprouted a romance that presents jazz as secular music and more. On Monday, the legends shared their love for Afro-Cuban music, hip-hop and activism at New York’s Greene Space with VIBE VIVA. 

READ: From Sacred Drums To 808s, Cuba’s Manana Festival Marries Folkloric Dance With Electronica

VIBE VIVA: What inspired the idea to mix your work with your O’Farill’s compositions?
Dr. Cornel West: “This talented artist right here suggested we do something together. He said he’s got a Cornel West concerto and I said, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ I said, ‘Brother, I will follow your instructions.’ I’m just blessed to be here with him.”

Arturo O’Farrill: “I had the opportunity to host a dialogue with Bob Avakian and Dr. West at Riverside Church and it was the first time I heard him speak live. I’ve seen him [on video] many times, but when I saw him speak live, it was electric. I tried to get a hold of him and he’s a busy man, but I went to see him again at a rally against police brutality and he wasn’t well, but he threw down! At the end of his speech, literally people’s hair were flying back. It was probably one of the most electrifying things I’ve ever seen in my life. Then the master of ceremonies came up and said, ‘And now we’ll have a word from Arturo O’Farrlll.’ [Laughs] He came up to me afterward and said, ‘Brother, that was strong.’ and I pitched the idea.”

Dr. Cornel West: “This talented artist right here suggested we do something together. He said he’s got a ‘Cornel West Concerto’ and I said, “You got to be kidding me.’ I said, ‘Brother, I will follow your instructions’ and I’m just blessed and honored.”

How do you think music and activism are connected?
DW: “My dear brother Arturo comes from a great tradition in which music comes from truth. And the condition of truth is allowing the suffering to speak. Whatever form it takes. It can be physic, it can be spiritual, it could be social, it could be political. But it engages the world in order to create a better world and that’s the great artistic tradition that flows from Africa to Cuba, to Latin America to New Orleans or all the way to Detroit, the Southside of Chicago. So forth and so forth. We’re losing that kind of courageous vision and that’s what I love so much about this brother here. He stands in that tradition with his mastery of technique to engage the truth and of course these days, it’s all about money, the trump truth you see.”

AO: “I’ve always thought of music as profound spirituality because you can use that music and that spirituality for personal gain or for the good of the world, the good of humanity and for the good of your people. I think when a musician loses their inhibition and dives deep into their soul, that’s a prayer. It’s so powerful that you will touch people whether it’s good or bad. By traditional music standards, look at Thelonius Monk. He wouldn’t be allowed in the Monk institute. But every note he played was spiritual, African and deep. What I love about Monk is when you play him for little kids, their eyes light up… they aren’t jazz fans. But that’s the power of spirituality and to me, Jazz of all music is the music that should be closely associated with activism and social cause. It comes from that powerful place inside a musician’s soul. Any person, any musician and any artist who doesn’t see what is going on today and doesn’t say anything, is doing a half-ass job.”

How would you both define secular music?
DW: “The secular and spiritual, the sacred and profane are always intertwined. I don’t think there’s such a thing as purely, exclusively secular music because any music that’s trying to get at our humanity, our suffering, our joy, and our pleasure is going to find the reality in which their dealing with has secular and sacred all tied together. It’s just who we are as human beings.”

AO: “The classic Ray Charles would be [considered] secular. He was born out of gospel tradition and the music he sang was still rooted musically in gospel. So people responded with complete abandon becasue they knew they were hearing something that was unlike anything they’ve ever heard before. People who worked with Ray Charles say he never lowered that standard. Everytime he played it was a spirtual expereience. There was an old saying that went ‘If you really wanted to check out Ray Charles, you had to watch his feet.’The tempos were right in there and boy did he get angry if you deviated from his tempo.He’d let you know.”

DW: “Yes, he had the highest level of excellence.”

That’s amazing. You’re going to be performing two other solos on Saturday, one being “Trump, Untrump.” We know where the inspiration comes from with the piece.
AO: “That’s the polite title.” [Laughs]

What really made you want to create that?
AO: “There’s a principle in science and philosophy and in art and relations that things clump together and eventually they drift apart. Life is a series of cycles and what you hope happens at the end of cycle is what you hope is permanent in that union. What I hoping happens is we know he’ll go away. We’ll know he’ll disappear. We know that this awful moment in American History will cease to be one day, as filled with hatred as it is, it will cease. I’m hoping what we are left with is the memory of the stupidity and ugliness we’ve allowed to creep into our lives and into our nation. I hope that when he goes away, the lessons he’s left us with ring loud and true. That we cannot tolerate this kind of admiration ever. It’s hard for me to believe we’ve allowed to happen now.”

I think most of us are surprised. We didn’t think this would be a conversation. On the upside, there will be a president at the end of this and I know you Dr. West are big supporter of Bernie Sanders. From what the world is telling us, he may not get the Democratic nomination so what happens then?
DW: “Well, we shall see. We’re fighting for the cause. In the end, it isn’t about the candidate, it’s about the cause. Bernie Sanders has come along at a particular moment and voices the certain kind of analysis and vision that puts poor people and working people at the center of things. From the wretched of the earth, those catching hell, and any other voice that accent the same kind of feeling or concern warrants that support. So we’ll just have to see.”

Check out their additional discussion with WQXR’s Helga Davis, where they share their admiration for Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco, as well their creative process.